Why Does San Diego Have Such Bad Air Quality? It’s Worse than You Might Think…

by on November 1, 2016 · 9 comments

in California, Culture, Election, Environment, Health, History, San Diego

air-quality-calif-mapBy South OB Girl

There is a lot of discussion these days about climate change. Global warming. Carbon emissions. The Climate Action Plan. You no doubt have friends talking about going electric, or who are proud owners and drivers of electric vehicles. Or friends or family members who devoutly bike everywhere. You may know some folks too who use public transportation.

The majority of San Diegans are dissatisfied with public transportation. San Diegans prefer cars — it’s our way of life. Not necessarily across the board — many satisfied bus riders in OB take the 923 bus downtown for work and are quite satisfied — doing work, reading, or playing games on their bus ride. Many people do use public transportation and are satisfied. But we have by no means reached an efficiency of public transportation comparable to New York City, San Francisco, Berlin, or many other large cities.

If public transportation does not genuinely get people from point A to point B in an amount of time comparable to driving or more quickly than driving — public transportation will likely not grow to be more popular in our city. Anyone who has spent an hour or longer by bus and trolley getting somewhere he/she could drive in 20 minutes has likely lowered his or her opinion of San Diego’s public transportation. And has been less eager to use it. Even individuals hopeful to utilize public transportation grow frustrated with it in San Diego.

We as a city are dissatisfied with public transportation and we are also facing the effects of climate change on top of having have horrible air quality (which may be a surprise to some people). Most of we San Diegans think of our city as having beautiful beaches and lovely, clean air. We think of our neighboring smoggy city of LA with disdain.

But we aren’t that far behind. And if we don’t make some changes it certainly isn’t going to get better.

And WHY is our air quality so bad??

For starters California as a whole is not doing well in air quality studies and several cities in California are among the top 25 worst cities for air pollution in the country. Los Angeles, which is not that much of a surprise, is the worst in the country. California cities dominate lists for the most polluted areas in the nation for ozone (smog) as well as short-term and annual particle pollution (soot).

The majority of emissions come from mobile sources, including on and off road diesel fueled-vehicles, cars, trucks, buses, and locomotives, ships, and aircraft. Ports and goods movement in the border areas contribute to local and regional pollution. Transport of particles from Mexico into Imperial County is a source of pollution. And area sources including smoke from residential wood burning contribute to pollution. In addition to local sources of pollution, San Diego and Imperial counties face additional challenges due to the transport of pollutants from the South Coast Air Basin to the north and from Mexico to the south, particularly El Centro.

Much of the information about air quality studies and the state of the nation’s air can be found in the American Lung Association’s “State of the Air 2016.” San Diego has an F ranking in the American Lung Association’s “State of the Air 2016.”

Trend charts, rankings, regional fact sheets, and maps are available here.

And the full 157 page document of the “State of the Air 2016” can be viewed here.

For 17 years, the American Lung Association has analyzed data from official air quality monitors to compile the State of the Air report. The American Lung Association “State of the Air 2016” report grades U.S. counties on harmful ozone (smog) and particle pollution (soot) recorded over a three-year period, and details trends for metropolitan areas over the past decade. The report ranks both the cleanest and most polluted areas in the country.

While the “State of the Air 2016” report shows progress for California, it serves to remind us of our struggle to breathe healthy air, as more than 80 percent of Californians live in counties affected with unhealthy air during certain parts of the year.

Climate change is a growing threat to air quality in California. Drought weather conditions and wildfires related to climate change are contributing to elevated levels of particle pollution in some areas of the state. Key sources of soot include wood burning devices, transportation sources such as diesel engines in trucks, buses and freight, and smoke from wildfires. Soot particles are so small that they can lodge deep in the lungs and trigger asthma attacks, heart attacks and strokes, and can be lethal. In San Diego and Imperial counties, more than 500,000 residents have asthma, including 69,000 children.

So what is our future??

I recently had the opportunity to meet with Debra Kelley, Advocacy Director of the American Lung Association of San Diego. As we discussed pollution, San Diego’s air quality statistics, and public transportation — two things were very clear. Many cities in California including San Diego have very bad air quality. And secondly, the American Lung Association encourages the use of electric vehicles. To decrease smog and improve air quality — Go electric.

To continue progress in cutting pollution, the American Lung Association has the following healthy air goals which it recommends for San Diego and Imperial Counties:

  • Increase zero emission vehicles and fuels, including passenger vehicles and freight.
  • Support clean air investments through the Greenhouse Gas Reduction Fund.
  • Coordinate efforts to assist with cross-border pollution that impacts air in the region.
  • Reduce climate pollutants, including methane and black carbon.
  • Plan healthier communities focused on walking, biking, transit, and zero-emission transportation options.

The American Lung Association has focused its advocacy for this election on Proposition 56. The American Lung Association encourages a “yes” vote on 56 (an increase on California’s cigarette tax by $2 per pack, with an equivalent increase on products containing nicotine derived from tobacco, including e-cigarettes).

Can’t help but think that a “yes” vote on Proposition 56 would also help our suffering air quality and would help to improve the health of many humans with a potential decrease in the sale and consumption of tobacco.

Measure A — also on the ballot for November — proposes $18 billion worth of changes to our transportation infrastructure in San Diego. Among the proposed changes in Measure A are an additional trolley line (which would be called the purple line), additional bus routes, and additional freeway lanes and routes. Business as usual — buses, trolley, and freeways.

Would any of those changes genuinely get people driving electric vehicles, genuinely speed up the rate of getting from point A to B on public transportation, or genuinely get people off the road?

Would adding a trolley line really get people out of their cars? Would a few more bus routes likewise get people off the road or driving electric? If a person still has to travel 30 minutes to an hour by bus and/or walking to get to the trolley or bus — their preference may still be to drive. Would additional lanes on the freeways get people off the road or driving electric?? Or if traffic flow were improved by additional lanes and connecting routes on the freeways — that would likely put more people on the roads.

To improve or at least maintain our air quality — it seems that more than a new trolley line, more than some added bus routes and freeway routes — need to be addressed.

Opposition to Measure A additionally points out the impact on public health caused by pollution and freeways. Specifically low-income communities and communities of color which are most likely to suffer from air pollution due to their proximity to freeways. Air pollution from cars is linked to cancer, asthma, cardiac diseases, and many other harmful health effects. Opposition to Measure A advocate that Measure A does not even begin to address San Diego’s air quality issues and Measure A threatens public health while doing nothing to create real solutions to address the region’s transportation needs.

San Diego recently committed to getting 100 percent of its energy from clean and renewable power sources with a Climate Action Plan that sets the boldest city-wide clean energy goals in the U.S. Increasing the use of electric vehicles will help slow down climate action change as well as clean up the air. Going out on a political limb here — but that $18 billion proposed by Measure A?? The emphasis made clear by the Climate Action Plan and American Lung Association needs to be going electric in our car dependent city. And not much in Measure A is promoting a movement towards electric.

To address the challenge of air pollution and climate change, the American Lung Association in California and major health and medical organizations urge the public and policy leaders to strongly support the federal Clean Air Act and the federal Clean Power Plan as well as California’s strong clean energy and clean air policies. This year the lung association is also calling for support of Senate Bill 1383 (Lara) to set clear targets for reducing “super pollutants” like black carbon from diesel exhaust and wood burning that threaten public health locally and are accelerating climate change.

Now is the time to transition from fossil fuels for transportation and energy generation to zero emissions solutions. Not much in Measure A is advocating that transition. And that would be $18 billion worth of a plan that is not environmentally sound and not helping to improve the state of our air.

{ 9 comments… read them below or add one }

OB Dude November 1, 2016 at 7:17 pm

Suggestion…Ban leaf/landscape blowers with gas power motors!


Rufus November 1, 2016 at 8:06 pm

The dirty little secret? We live next door to 3 million Mexican citizens who don’t have any kind of pollution controls on their cars or industry.

The border fence doesn’t stop air pollution.

Fact, whether you like it or not.


Frank Gormlie November 1, 2016 at 10:42 pm

Why does LA have worst pollution than SD?


South OB Girl November 2, 2016 at 2:04 pm

cars cars cars….population… The Valley… Geology


South OB Girl November 2, 2016 at 2:02 pm

Enforced smog checks in Mexico?? How to pull that one off amidst every other problem in Mexico…


Rufus November 2, 2016 at 4:00 am

It’s an accident of geology combined with commerece. The LA metro area is in a bowl formed by the Santa Monica Mountains to the north and the San Gabriel Mountains to the east. So you put 4 million people in a bowl, combine that with heavy industry, cars, and refineries and you get smutzy air.

San Diego has 1.3 million people but we don’t have the same geology or manufacturing that LA has. However San Diego has a gracious neighbor to the south of the same size but without the same air pollution controlls on their cars. But they’re trying!

Frank, we’re old guys who remember being able to slice the dirty air with a knife. I can still remember the hurt in my lungs circa the 1960s. We’ve made huge strides.

But air pollution is an international problem. I don’t want to economically punnish Californians for making epic progress towards clean air when the real big global pollutors get away scott free. China, India, Russia just to name three.


Christo November 2, 2016 at 8:19 am

LA, Denver and Salt Lake City all have similar geologic factors.

LA and Denver have made strides to improve their output. Salt Lake is still horrible.


CJ November 2, 2016 at 7:24 am

You didn’t mention that the closure of San Onofre created an immediate increase in the use of fossil fuels.


South OB Girl November 2, 2016 at 2:03 pm

Excellent comments and suggestions everyone… All ideas which might improve the state of our air…


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